In one way or another we begin teaching our children to ignore their bodies at a very young age. We expect them to sit silent and still in their school desks for hours every day, letting them outside briefly to laugh, play and run around. We encourage our athletes to play through their pain and have grown accustomed to teenagers having surgery to repair their injuries. Many adults spend our working days hunched over computer keyboards or outside in extreme temperatures or engaged in countless damaging repetitive motions.
We learn to tune out the “Take a break!” messages our bodies send us because we are so intent on tasks, but our productivity comes at a price. Our bodies respond with inflamed tendons, acid reflux, insomnia and reduced resistance to disease. Their protests don’t go away just because we refuse to pay attention. Our stiff shoulders and tight guts continue to send messages to our brains about the safety or lack of it in any given moment. We all know that stress can skew our thinking processes. We don't realize just how many of our everyday choices are impacted by our unconscious derailed warning systems. Becoming more aware of what's happening in our bodies can help us make better decisions and lean into positive spiritual emotions like compassion, hope, joy and serenity.
INTRODUCING BODY AWARENESS
A first step toward healing the body/spirit disconnect is to deepen our awareness of our bodies. Bringing physical sensations into consciousness helps us listen to our body's wisdom ("Get up and walk around for five minutes") and pay less attention to its false alarms ("If I have to get up and speak in front of this group I'm going to die on the spot.")
Most of us have at least some awareness of how our bodies respond to stress. Take a moment to consider precisely where you feel your stress: Is it in your gut? shoulders? forehead? back of neck? lower back? somewhere else? We each have our own unique response.
When you feel happy, where does that emotion register in your body? Is it a warm feeling that spreads across your chest? Do your shoulders drop just a bit? Does your face relax into a smile? Does your breathing move from your chest to your diaphragm? What happens to you physically if you’re able to see a night sky or a toddler laughing? Take a few minutes to remember.
Anger and happiness are names and meanings we give to a constellation of sensations in our bodies. For example, when we perceive a threat our muscles tighten, our breath gets shallow, our hearts race - and we call that sensation fear. When we share a loving smile with someone our muscles relax, a sense of warmth permeates our bodies, and we call that reaction joy. Becoming more aware of the physical sensations underlying our emotions gives us a deeper awareness about ourselves. It increases our capacity to respond thoughtfully rather than simply reacting to the emotions coursing above or below our level of awareness.
Let’s revisit your gratitude practice.
1) Begin by doing a self-inventory right now. What is your body sensing, and what emotion-name would you use to label it?
Descriptors for body sensations are words like relaxed, tense, sore, warm, cold, tingly, etc.
Names for emotions are happy, tired, stressed, bored, sad, relaxed, etc.
If you like, rate the intensity of what you’re experiencing from 1 to 10.
2) Take a couple of deep breaths and settle into your chair or bed or wherever you find yourself. Place yourself consciously in God’s presence. Take another moment to notice your breathing. Then call to mind someone or something you are truly grateful for. Let’s say it’s your Aunt Peg. Take a minute to remember what her face looks like, how her voice sounds, how she dresses. Remember a special moment you had with her. How did you feel physically in that moment? Emotionally? How do you feel now as you recall it? (If she is somehow absent from you now, your current emotion may be sadness.) Thank God for her presence in your life. Stay with this for a bit, as best you can. If your thoughts race away, gently call them back.
3) Now check back in with your body and see if your physical sensations have changed. Are your muscles more relaxed? Your face softened? Do you have a different sensation in your chest or gut? Is there something else you notice? Try your 1-10 rating again and see if there’s a difference. Which state do you prefer? Which helps you be your best self?
THE LIMITS OF EFFORT
Our bodies aren’t machines and we can only influence, not control our emotional responses. We can only manage ourselves to a point, and, as we seem to need to be reminded, we can’t manipulate God at all. What we can do is create circumstances and practices that allow more space for our spirits to thrive.
You may or may not have been able to fully enter into this exercise today. That's normal. You are beginning to consciously train your body/brain, which is a lot like trying to train a two-month-old puppy. Or a cat. The work takes practice, and there is no straight path from Point A to Point B. Few of us will totally "get there" in this life.
But we are created body/spirits, and our bodies have a significant impact on how we think and behave. Consciously asking God’s help, relying on grace, and working with our bodies rather than against them, can move us toward a more spiritually resilient response to the challenges and joys of our lives today.
A Word About Trauma
Trauma can be a major impediment in our ability to respond to some of these exercises. Tuning out emotions and conscious connection with the body is a survival strategy for many who have experienced deep grief and trauma. If you are now or have in the past carried a great deal of pain, please be careful about re-engaging body awareness. This work asks us to be cautious and brave at the same time. Strategies that are helpful when we're ready can be risky when we're not. Please listen to your own inner wisdom, and access professional help when it is needed and possible.
Before the next lesson, please remind yourself occasionally to notice your body, and stick with your gratitude practice. I'd love to hear your thoughts below.